Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Reformation

The reappearance of the Man of Sorrows

On recent hols in Norfolk, we discovered the extraordinary Binham Priory, having somehow managed not to notice it before – a historical collage, an architectural palimpsest, part ruin, part living place of worship, a real survivor of a building.

For me, the most extraordinary survival is the mediaeval rood screen, or what’s left of it. The original rich paintings of saints were whitewashed out by iconoclasts at the Reformation, and replaced by texts in heavy black Gothic lettering from the Cranmer Bible of 1539. The iconoclasts have had a bad press in recent times. But one needs to see where they were coming from. It’s a bit like the anecdote mentioned in the 1962 Situationist text “Theses on the Paris Commune” by Guy Debord, Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem:

The story of the arsonists who during the last days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find themselves confronted by an armed battalion of Communard artists [intent on defending it], is rich in meaning: it is a fine example of direct democracy.

But I digress. The amazing thing about the rood screen is that with the passage of time the obliterated paintings have reasserted themselves. Through the crumbling inferior whitewash have re-emerged the faces of the defaced saints. Here, as an example, is the figure of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. (Or perhaps intended as the Risen Christ?)

Even more remarkable is that the painter who lettered on the text filled in the odd gap at the end of his lines with decorative curlicues of red. Now that both layers are visible together, it can be seen that these red shapes continue and elaborate the drops of blood that flow from Christ’s wounds in the original painting.

A miracle. And I use the word carefully.

Incidentally, the text painted over the figure of Christ is from 1 Timothy 6, 10-12:

For coveteousnes of money is the roote of all evyll whych whyll some lusted after they erred from the fayth, and tanglyd themselues with many sorowes. But thou man of God flye soch thynges …

One couldn’t ask for a better text. All the rood screen images are shown on this excellent page from the Priory website.